PocketBlue walks a beat wirelessly and silently

PocketBlue walks a beat wirelessly and silently

Aether Systems' PocketBlue application on a wireless personal digital assistant or notebook PC lets law enforcement officers query databases and communicate with each other securely and silently.

Designed for state, local and federal law enforcement, PocketBlue can search official records of license plates, guns, people and stolen articles. If a query turns up a violation, the software alerts all officers in a PocketBlue group for possible backup.

The messages and queries are secured by 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard technology. Each handheld or notebook has an IP address that can be turned off in about 30 seconds. This renders a device ineffective if it's reported stolen.

Because only law enforcement officials can buy PocketBlue, the GCN Lab reviewed the software and service in a demonstration version, on both a Palm V with a Novatel Wireless Minstrel V modem and a Research in Motion Ltd. BlackBerry pager.

The PocketBlue demo server in Massachusetts let us enter fake license numbers, names and articles. Results came impressively fast. For a dummy license number, ARD7151, both test units in seconds were beeping and vibrating with a report of a stolen vehicle.

PocketBlue's embedded messaging service also let the incompatible devices communicate seamlessly.

The speedy response comes from data mining technology. Each query is processed simultaneously through a local motor vehicle administration, the FBI's National Crime Information Center and the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.

BlackBerry blues

We found the well-designed PocketBlue interface easy to use on a notebook or Palm. On a BlackBerry, the commands were more obscure and required familiarity with the device, because everything was in folders or subfolders'no icons as on the Palm. BlackBerry text was also smaller and somewhat harder to read than the Palm's.

On a Palm, once a user name and password connected the unit to the central database, the screen showed all the queries available. An officer could merely tap on a query and enter the relevant information.

On a notebook PC, the interface was similar except for more color and detail. For example, the notebook interface could show all the officers' names currently online. A name in red would indicate the person just ran a check that registered as a violation.

Even though the PocketBlue service worked well, there are potential problems with it. Speed counts in law enforcement, and a 19.9-Kbps connection is slow. Also, the Cellular Digital Packet Data technology, which works like a cell phone, would slow considerably if a large group were using PocketBlue at the same time.

Another potential problem is that a criminal conceivably could sabotage the entire communications system of a law enforcement agency by introducing a simple virus into one of its handhelds.

Besides implementing strict antivirus guidelines, police departments would have to train their personnel to use and maintain the wireless devices as well as to spot suspicious computer activity.

Such costs, coupled with the necessary equipment replacements or upgrades every three to five years, could run quite high.

Nevertheless, PocketBlue looks like an effective technology'particularly for bicycle or horseback officers who could do secure querying and messaging far afield.

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